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By Kat Dibbits on

XFRMR: A Q&A with Robbie Thomson

Robbie Thomson, the artist behind our XFRMR event, answers some questions about his work.

Firstly, can you introduce your show and tell us what it is about?

Robbie Thomson: XFRMR is a live audio-visual performance that explores the creative possibilities of the Tesla coil as a musical instrument in its own right.

The technology is based on Nikola Tesla’s 1891 design, which was originally developed for long-range power transmission. In the show, I synthesise waveforms that manipulate the high voltage discharges from the coil to create live musical tones that are set against an underlying electronic score.

The composition itself moves between soundscapes inspired by the sounds of space weather and percussive sections rooted in industrial music and techno.

A tesla coil inside a faraday cage makes dramatically coloured sparks
Credit: Culture Station

How and where will the work be staged?

In XFRMR the Tesla coil takes centre stage. It’s housed in a large steel Faraday cage that shields the 250,000 volt arcs of plasma and the electromagnetic fields that the coil produces. The show is driven along by dynamic lighting effects and audio-reactive projections, which are mapped onto the setup.

Why should someone come and see your show?

It’s a chance to experience raw electricity first hand, the Tesla coil is a visceral phenomenon to be up-close to, and you might even smell the ozone being created from the sparks.

Where did the idea and inspiration come from?

I was interested in high voltage devices and so was drawn to using the Tesla coil on a visual level and from a historical perspective before I was really aware of its musical potential. The direct correlation of the sonic and visual elements and the real physicality of the coil as an electro-acoustic instrument (the air ionising to create sound and light) made it ideal to use in an artistic context.

Why do you think it’s an important story to tell?

The ways in which technology is being used to synthesise natural phenomena relates to so many aspects of where the frontier of science is at today. The boundaries between synthetic and natural worlds are constantly being tested (whether that be in artificial intelligence or nanotechnology), so it’s interesting to consider the nature of electricity and invisible wavelengths within this context, as it is something that we usually either ignore or take for granted.

What sort of person is going to love this show?

Audiences for XFRMR have been really varied in the past; I’ve played in clubs where the emphasis has been on dancing and in seated theatres where people have tuned in more to the nuances of the sound. I think there’s something there for anyone with an interest in electronic music and technology, but also for people who are more visually orientated and want to experience a dramatic display of electricity.

What’s going to surprise people about this show?

I think people will be surprised by how musical the Tesla coil can be; you can make it really expressive and create quite delicate timbres, as well as distorted tones and harsh percussive stabs.

XFRMR is at the Science and Industry Museum on Friday 15 February. Tickets cost £5; book yours here.

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